Music News

Noise Boy goes out drinking with the Phoenix Bach Choir

On a recent First Friday, I dispensed with the art early to take in some music. But instead of the folk singers, experimental rock acts, and hip-hop I usually catch on Roosevelt Row during one of these chaotic art-walk nights, I was headed to hear the Grammy Award-winning Phoenix Bach Choir.

You may wonder why I'd want to listen to a group named after a very dead European guy who wore a powdered wig. It's because the homegrown choir is one of the best choral ensembles in the world.

I haven't been able to get enough of the Bach Choir since seeing them perform for the first time in November 2007. Up to that point, I knew the 49-year-old group existed but didn't think it would be anything special. However, since that first concert, I've attended five shows, kept a number of the group's albums on regular rotation, and tagged along with it to L.A. for the Grammy Awards. (Together, with the Kansas City Chorale, the two groups garnered four nominations, winning one in the "Best Engineered Album, Classical" category.)

My experiences with the Phoenix Bach Choir — which started in 1958 at the Central Avenue and Palm Lane home of Hal and Timona Pittman — have been awesome. The group's 24 vocalists predominantly sing a cappella and sometimes with organ, piano, or small-instrument percussion. Add conductor Charles Bruffy's quirky, unpretentious sense of humor, and you feel like you're watching a concert in your living room.

One of the recent performances I attended featured a program with folk songs from around the world, sung in 10 different languages. If you'd closed your eyes during the Chinese and Kenyan numbers (which I did), you would think they were a Chinese or Kenyan choir and not a bunch of white people singing their guts out at acoustically amazing, intimate Valley churches. (If it wasn't for the Bach Choir, I would never set foot inside a church.)

When I'm quietly sitting at the back of the private rehearsal space at Trinity Episcopal Cathedral (the Choir's home base), the beauty of the human voice once again mesmerizes me. I watch as Bruffy, who is the artistic director and conductor of both the Phoenix Bach Choir and the Kansas City (Missouri) Chorale, instructs the group. Seriously, I could listen to this for hours and hours.

After the rehearsal, I invited some Bach Choir members to a night out on the town. I wanted to see if they could hang because, on the surface, musicians who are required to wear tuxedos and black dresses onstage seem like über-geeks to me.

Surprisingly, when the group (which includes Bruffy, Laura Inman, and Erik Gustafson) convenes at Dilly Dally on Indian School Road, we are, by far, the most boisterous, party-centric folks in the joint. Several drinkers who seem like regulars give us the evil eye once Inman, Gustafson, and I start chucking plastic spheres at the electronic dartboard during a game of 301. At one point, two curious onlookers by the dancing Elvis pinball machine look our way and shake their heads, especially when Inman, a firecracker with a thick Arkansas accent, haphazardly hurls each dart with the velocity of a major-league fastball. It's easy to see that these Bach Choir members are anything but the stereotypically prim and proper classical musicians.

Despite being a Grammy-winning group, most PBC members work day jobs out of necessity. When I spoke to executive director, assistant conductor, and singer Joel Rinsema, I found out that choir members are paid only about $5,000 a year (a typical salary for a professional choir singer is between $3,000 and $5,000).

According to Rinsema, whose wife, Dana Bender, is also a vocalist in the group, most PBC members teach music professionally or sing in other projects to make ends meet. Some members also work in oddball professions. For example, Gustafson is an ASU film student who stars in the experimental Conan O'Brien — The Musical (a clip from the flick actually made the late-night talk show; check it out on YouTube because it's hilarious). Holly Meyer designs video games. Another former singer, Caroline Markham (who may rejoin next season), is a wrangler in Wickenburg.

Though I understand that choral music isn't the sexiest art form in the world, I think it's a shame that the members of the Bach Choir can't make a living doing what they love. Ticket sales account for up to only 20 percent of the organization's earned income, which means it relies heavily on individual contributions and government support. It doesn't make sense that the singers can win a Grammy but can't pay the bills while doing it.

"Our biggest challenge is to spread the word. That's the case in both Phoenix and Kansas City," says Bruffy, the PBC's kind-hearted and eccentric leader since 1999. "It's a hard sell, but I trust the public and trust their intelligence, if you will. The two choirs are true crusaders in the industry to share the art form in a way that's accessible and comfortable and attractive to the audience. Sequins and cleavage aren't necessary."

Though the Grammy has helped, the group is always challenged to expand its fan base. A few recent moves that could assist include the hiring of Jen Rogers as director of marketing and communications (Rogers, who also programs progressive new-music shows at downtown art spaces for the Phoenix Creative Music Movement, is the one who introduced me to the Bach Choir), and an in-the-works tour next season that will include a stop in New York City.

Though it's too early to tell whether these changes will make more people hip to this amazing group, I do know that they've won me over and I'll be attending their concerts on a regular basis.

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Steve Jansen
Contact: Steve Jansen